Saturday, November 04, 2017


Not Again! Boarding School Story Misses the Mark*

Last year, Debbie and I analyzed several picture books about children in Indian boarding school for a book chapter. We intentionally left out of our chapter a fairly popular 1993 book, Cheyenne Again, by European-American writer Eve Bunting, illustrated by Dine artist Irving Toddy. I recently saw it in a display of children’s books about Native people in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument bookstore (which also featured several good books created by Native people.)

Young Bull, the narrator of Cheyenne Again, is 10 when the story starts. It’s apparently set in the late 1800s, when boarding schools began to proliferate. A white man and a uniformed, fully assimilated Native man come to Young Bull’s community and tell his family that he must go away to school.

The boy doesn’t want to go. But his father tells him he “needs to learn the White Man’s ways”– and there will be food for him at school. How the father can be sure of that is not explained.

So Young Bull rides the train to an unnamed school. School officials cut his hair, take his clothes, make him wear a scratchy uniform, disrespect his heritage. With dozens of fellow students, he marches in formation, goes to church, and helps repair the school dormitories. He learns to read, and notices that the school’s history books say nothing about how Cheyenne and Sioux (sic) defeated Custer at Greasy Grass. He cries for home in his bed at night.

Then one night he runs away -- into a blizzard. He’s caught and shackled for a day as punishment. A sympathetic teacher then encourages him to “Never forget that you are Indian inside.” He finds that drawing scenes of home and of Cheyenne heroism at Greasy Grass helps him feel that he is “Cheyenne again.”

In her review of this book for A Broken Flute: the Native Experience in Books for Children, Beverly Slapin comments that Irving Toddy’s illustrations vividly express the depressed, desperate boarding school ambience, in contrast to the bright golden scenes of Young Bull’s early boyhood and the heroic events he imagines. I agree: the illustrations feel psychologically “true,” which makes sense, given that Toddy himself attended a boarding school.

The historical record confirms elements of Bunting’s story: parents who were misled but hoped for the best, unpleasant or hostile school environments, children’s loneliness, the harm deliberately inflicted on students in service to the goals of conquest and/or assimilation.

Historical accuracy is essential but goes only so far in supporting authenticity. I wondered why Young Bull doesn’t seem to interact with peers. Boarding school survivors have reported social relationships and friendships among children, despite efforts at some schools to squelch such relationships (to reduce the chance of organized resistance to their regime). And would school officials have tolerated ledger book drawings of Cheyenne military glory? If not, Young Bull’s drawings are acts of resistance, and the author should make that clear to readers!

But Young Bull’s escape attempt feels especially out of touch. Many children ran from boarding schools. Some were caught and punished. Some died of hunger or exposure. Some made it home.

It makes sense that Young Bull wants to escape. He’s been there long enough to learn to read history books in English. But instead of carefully planning his get-away, this otherwise seemingly cautious character, from a region that has severe winters, seems to ignore everything he knows about blizzards and walks into one, barely clothed, at night, apparently on impulse.

This lack of clear motivation, for me, undermines the protagonist’s credibility and misses a chance to bring an important dimension to the story. An adult reader is likely to think, “Sure he hates it there, but he should know better than to run NOW!” Child readers/listeners may imagine themselves as more sensible: “I’d take food and a blanket and I’d wait for a warmer night.” It’s just hard to avoid the sense that the kid made a dumb move.

Bunting has depicted affronts to Young Bull’s dignity and well-being that might lead him to plot an escape. But running into a winter storm -- from a place that, for all its awfulness, at least provides shelter – suggests extreme, immediate fear and desperation. What could make death by hypothermia preferable to “staying put” a moment longer? What threat or actual harm has pushed Young Bull to run, after so long at the school? Was he assaulted or threatened by a teacher? Unfairly and cruelly punished? Humiliated once too often to bear? The story would be a clearer window on boarding school experience if it showed readers why fear/loneliness/anger overpower the boy, making him forget his own safety.

I feel that Toddy’s evocative illustrations are worth a look. But I don’t recommend Cheyenne Again as historical fiction for children about boarding schools or Native kids.

Try these instead!
Home to Medicine Mountain by Chiori Santiago (ill. by Judith Lowry)
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (ill. Gabrielle Grimard)
Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola Campbell (ill. by Kim LaFave)

* "Not Again" was submitted by Jean Mendoza. 


Ava Jarvis said...

Two thoughts occur to me:

1. This writer didn't do nearly enough research into experiences. Research into facts, plenty of, but not experiences to round out the implications of those facts on the experiences of a person.

2. Society blames victims and sees them as weak, stupid, helpless, and in need of rescue by odd-out sympathetic third parties (usually from oppressive factions). "Don't think like a victim" and other such platitudes.

But the fact of the matter is that we who survive our abusive experiences rarely do so because some other person in the oppressing class helped us realize ourselves. We know our situation extremely well, and being victimized doesn't diminish our resourcefulness.

I feel that the sympathetic teacher character, especially if they were white, helping Young Bull "realize" himself is a slap in the face. Kids are smarter and stronger than that. I was, and I was no exception. And... I don't think that was a realistic part of the story. I feel it's some kind of manifestation of author guilt that overrode portraying Young Bull as a stronger character.

I can only speak from my own experience as a child of Vietnamese refugees from the Vietnam War, who came to America. I was quarantined in a separate class through all of grade school for being bilingual and not allowed to play with other children there, and was punished for speaking Vietnamese. Which isn't anywhere near the experience of those horrific boarding schools, merely a tiny tiny taste of it. (I'm no longer bilingual.)

But yeah... no white saviors there.

Beverly Slapin said...

Excellent review, Jean! You're right, Jean and Avis: There were no white saviors, no kindly teachers to offer "salve to soothe the place the chain has rubbed." After Indian children's aborted escapes from Carlisle and the other Indian boarding schools--and their being chained and imprisoned--there would have been no one to console them by telling them, "Never forget that you are Indian inside. Don't let us take your memories." Any teacher behaving in this manner would have been fired on the spot, and additional punishment would have been meted out to the children as well.

And Ava, research into genuine experiences and facts has never been Eve Bunting's forte. In all of her "social justice" picture books (CHEYENNE AGAIN, A DAY'S WORK, MOON STICK, ONE GREEN APPLE, SMOKY NIGHT, SO FAR FROM THE SEA, and many, many others) the way she writes sidesteps and "whitewashes," so to speak, the truths of historical and contemporary times for Native children and children of color. Professor Dan Hade called what she does "Aestheticizing the Poor, Anesthetizing the Reader."

Unknown said...

That stuck out to me too--given the "mission" of these schools, wouldn't it be more likely that Young Bull would find help and strength "remaining Indian inside" from an older student, rather than a randomly sympathetic white teacher? I don't know enough to say, but it just seems so dependent on a white savior/kindly white person narrative that is at odds with how those schools functioned.


Ava Jarvis said...

Beverly -- good to know re: Eve Bunting's record.

Jean Mendoza said...

Ava, Beverly, & Veronica, thanks for your additions to the conversation about Cheyenne Again. As you note, the book has more "issues" than were covered in this review! (See Beverly's review in A Broken Flute.) Few books can cover every aspect of boarding schools that made them so dreadful, but some details, when left out, result in a key plot point that doesn't make psychological sense. (Don't get me started on the sell-out Native man who helps the white guy "recruit" the children for the school.)

I know that one reason the book is available in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument bookstore is that it's ostensibly about a child whose nation participated in that battle. But it still seems to sell well on amazon, too; and libraries seem to be keeping it in stock. We now have more "boarding school books" than were available in 1993 when Cheyenne Again was first published. A number of them have been written by people with family members who attended the schools (or who attended themselves). THOSE are the books kids need to see in bookstores and on library shelves.

Jean Mendoza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beverly Slapin said...

Exactly, Veronica! Many of the older "students" at Carlisle and the other Indian boarding schools would whisper to the younger children in their Native languages to keep them connected and, as one former boarding school "student" told me, "to be subversive"! In CHEYENNE AGAIN, "Young Bull" is encouraged to create ledger drawings so that he can "remain Indian inside." This is not what the ledger drawings were for. Along with those horrid "before and after" photos, the ledger drawings were used as fundraisers--sold to "patrons" of the schools. CHEYENNE AGAIN is typical of Eve Bunting's "social justice" creations.

Jean Mendoza said...

I meant to put quotes around "sell-out" in my comment about the Native man who helps recruit students. The reasons a student or former student might do that are many and complex, though it's clear that Bunting wants the reader to feel that that particular character is betraying the Native children for material gain and perhaps a the illusion of power.

Sam Jonson said...

I have learned of Bunting's exploitation of social justice issues from a book called LITTLE RED READINGS, which focuses on representations of poverty and capitalism in children's literature. Not included in that book (but equally important, I think) was the apparent reason Bunting feels entitled to all the exploitation: She suffered religious discrimination while growing up in Northern Ireland. I repeat: Anti-Catholic discrimination, against entitled white Irish people. Such discrimination may have been bad, but what's worse is that Bunting apparently thinks that All Discrimination Is Created Equal. Which it most assuredly is NOT. Way for Bunting to be the pot calling the kettle black, with her white Christian privilege!